Professor Michael Goodfellow (1941–2024): a tribute

16 April 2024

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The Microbiology Society is saddened to report the death of Mike Goodfellow on 8 March 2024, following a short illness. He was 83 and still highly active. Mike was the preeminent authority on the systematics of the actinomycetes (now formally named Actinomycetota Goodfellow 2021) and was committed to using systematics as the framework for ecological understanding and effective bioprospecting of these hugely important bacteria.

After a childhood in the Borders of England and Scotland, Mike completed undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Liverpool, being awarded his Ph.D. in 1966 for a study of ‘The classification of bacteria in a pine wood soil’ (a subject he returned to in later life, until very recently enjoying trips to Hamsterley Forest in County Durham to sample the pine litter). It was during his time at Liverpool that Mike met his great friend and collaborator Stan Williams and also became a lifelong supporter of Liverpool Football Club (FC).

Following a short post-doctoral position at Penn State University, Mike was appointed to a Junior MRC Fellowship with Peter Sneath FRS in the MRC Systematics Unit at the University of Leicester (1967-1969). Peter remained a friend and mentor to Mike, encouraging him to apply the numerical taxonomy approach to studies on the systematics of actinomycetes. In 1969, Mike was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Microbiology at Newcastle University, where he was to stay for the remainder of his career, being promoted to Senior Lecturer (1978), Reader (1981) and to a Personal Chair in Microbial Systematics (1989-2009). After his nominal ‘retirement’ in 2009, Mike remained highly active as a Senior Research Investigator, and was awarded a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellowship (2012–2014).

Although his interests were diverse, a major focus of Mike’s research was the systematics of the Actinomycetota, and in particular the mycolic-acid containing (nocardioform) actinomycetes. Early in his career in Newcastle, he began his highly productive collaboration with Dave Minnikin and various colleagues, pioneering the use of chemical analyses to identify the menaquinone, fatty acid and polar lipid compositions of bacterial cell envelopes as taxonomic characters. This "chemotaxonomy" became one of the main components of the polyphasic taxonomic approach that was established in the 1970s and exemplified Mike’s outstanding ability to innovate and adopt novel approaches to systematics. In this period, Mike also served on the Councils of the Society for Applied Bacteriology (1974–1979) and the Society for General Microbiology (now the Microbiology Society; 1979–1984).

By the 1990s, molecular methods based on 16S rRNA were becoming established for bacterial systematics and Mike was again an enthusiastic adopter of this novel approach. During this period, Mike also edited, with Tony O’Donnell, the outstanding 1993 ‘Handbook of New Bacterial Systematics’. His experience in selective isolation procedures opened the door to collaborations with several pharmaceutical companies interested in secondary metabolites produced by actinobacteria and, most recently, his work as a Scientific Adviser to Demuris Ltd. (2009-2022). Mike was greatly energised by the practical applications of systematics as the underpinning for the biotechnological utilisation of microbes through bioprospecting. In this work, he was ably aided and abetted by his good friend Alan Bull, with whom he travelled far and wide. Even in their 70s, they were clambering over the Atacama Desert in Chile, a place they both loved. Reflecting his interest in the isolation of microbes, Mike also supported the work of culture collections, serving as President of the UK Federation of Culture Collections (1990-1997). In recognition of his work, in 1998 he was awarded the J. Roger Porter Award from the American Society for Microbiology for significant contributions to the interests and activities of culture collections and microbial systematics.

More recently, Mike was an enthusiastic promoter of the use of genomics in prokaryotic taxonomy; chapters on sequence-based analyses were the predominant content of the ‘New Approaches to Prokaryotic Systematics’ volume that Mike co-edited, whilst his 2018 paper ‘Genome-based taxonomic classification of the phylum Actinobacteria’ published with Imen Nouioui and colleagues remains a landmark study. Overall, Mike published over 500 scientific papers and scholarly articles, describing more than 200 prokaryotic species, and edited 15 books. In return, he was recognised with the naming of a genus (Goodfellowiella Labeda et al. 2008) and three species (Leptotrichia goodfellowii Eribe et al. 2004; Nocardia goodfellowii Sazak et al. 2012; Salinispora goodfellowii Román-Ponce et al. 2020). He successfully supervised nearly 70 PhD students, as well as postdoctoral and visiting academics from diverse backgrounds and countries. Friends – both academic and non – have remarked how supportive and encouraging he was; he had a special talent for making everyone he met see and feel their intellectual value.

Aside from these many scientific contributions, and the training and mentoring of so many, Mike contributed much to the organisational infrastructure and stewardship of microbial systematics. He served on the Executive of the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes, including two terms as Executive Secretary/Treasurer (1986-1994) and two terms as Secretary for Subcommittees (1996-2002) and was twice a member of its Judicial Commission (1978-1986 and 1994-2002). He was Editor-in–Chief of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek from 1997-2003, and a member (2000-2011), then Vice-Chair (2005–2018), Chair (2008 - 2011) and lastly Emeritus Member of the Board of Trustees of Bergey’s Manual Trust. In recognition of these contributions, he was awarded the 1995 Bergey Award and the 2011 Bergey Medal for outstanding contributions to microbial systematics. During his time as Chair of the Trust, he worked with Jim Staley to establish Bergey’s International Society for Microbial Systematics (BISMiS), which continues to thrive. He received a BISMiS Lifetime Achievement Award at the 5th BISMiS Meeting in Guangzhou, China in November 2023. He was also made a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology in 1998.

Mike was part of the generation that greatly benefitted from the post-war social changes in the UK, particularly in education. He was a staunch supporter of state education and served the community as Governor and later Chair of the Governing Body of Gosforth High School/Gosforth Academy (1974–2010) and was recognised by being made a “Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” for “Services to Education”, which he accepted whilst, as a committed anti-imperialist, acknowledging the problematic connotations of the word ‘Empire’. Mike was a lifelong socialist, republican and a true internationalist.  It is telling that many of his lifelong friendships started out as professional collaborations with colleagues from all over the world. A desire for equity, fairness and social justice were at the very heart of his character. He was an active supporter of the UK Labour Party and very much on its left. It has often been remarked that his trademark red jumpers reflected both his politics and his enduring support of Liverpool FC. He was exceptionally well-read, particularly of historical and political non-fiction books from around the world. When he wasn’t working or reading, Mike loved to hike in the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands, never forgetting his roots in Scotland.

Mike is survived by his wife Punita, who supported him in all his activities, and his two daughters, Maya and Lena, of whom he was exceptionally proud.

This celebration is an edited and abridged version of a full obituary that has been published in the Microbiology Society’s International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.